They Hired a Sniper and Made a Kill in One Shot

Adam Bahret
Adam Bahret

I can’t believe it!¬†They took it to the next level,¬† They hired a sniper, and he was good, he got a kill shot with one round.

I’m in the hull of my boat doing what should be the easiest “Spring prep before launch” I have ever done.  I got everything set up a week earlier to make this ritual of “man vs machine” as easy as possible.  I even took care of the squirrel problem from the previous year.

I just sat there, silent, holding the inlet pipe and filter section in my hand, just staring at it, in total disbelief at what I was looking at.  It is a single acorn that is perfectly sized to clog the water inlet port on a 5.7L Pleasure Craft Marine motor.  When I say perfect I’m talking about the diameter of this acorn being within +- 0.005″  Do you think I’m exaggerating?  I’m not.  I put 80psi of water behind it and it didn’t budge, not only did it not budge, not one single drop of water got past it. It was the ultimate kill shot, and it worked.  My motor’s raw water impeller is in 500 pieces from running dry for 60 seconds.  A clean kill. We’re not launching the boat today.

Impellers are supposed to be one piece.

Those who know me know my love/hate relationship with my boat.  It’s 90% hate and 10% love. I’m a car guy that lives on a lake. It’s the law that you have to own a boat if you live on a lake. That’s what my friends and family tell me. They threatened to report me if I didn’t get one.  So I got one,…. yeah 

I hate preparing it when the season starts, I hate preparing it when the season ends, I hate covering it at the end of the day, I hate when it breaks down in the middle of the lake, I hate fixing it while it’s in the water and I’m getting bounced around by the wake from other boats, I hate driving it in circles until I want to puke, so the kids can enjoy riding the tubes or whatever.

I love it when 300hp hits the prop and this huge rocket launches out of the water and screams across the water at warp speed.  I love it when I am wakeboarding and I get launched ski high off a wake, but that’s about it for love.

The perfect Shot

That’s man vs machine, If we are going full Hemingway with this boat saga we need man vs nature.  We”ll it wasn’t the water habitat that rose to the occasion, it was the land dwellers, specifically the squirrels.

Last Spring I headed out to get the old girl ready to hit the water.  I open the wrap and can’t believe what I am looking at.  It’s pine cones, thousands and thousands of pine cones.  Not just a few thrown here or there, they are everywhere. Squirrels!  They even put them in the cup holders so they were easier to pull apart. They used the cup holders!!!!! There’s sap and pine cones everywhere. It looks like the fields on the last day of Woodstock, if Woodstock was six months long and attended by varmints. Even after a week of pulling the boat apart, vacuuming, getting sap out of everything… there would be more pine cone parts on the floor and in the bilge after a day out on the water, every time. This was for the entire summer.  In October we were still finding pine cones parts and acorns at the end of the day.

So last winter when I put it away I packed the boat with mothballs (naphthalene).  They smell horrible and keep everything away.  You could smell them within 10 feet of the covered boat when you walked by.  To my great pleasure, when I opened the boat last week… there was not a single pine cone or acorn to be seen, Check-mate my little fury nemesis.

Sooooo I’m getting the boat ready for launch.  Last step of this is to make sure the motor is running fine.  This is preferable to finding out it is not running fine, while half in the water on the launch ramp.

For those of you not cursed with boating, to run a boat on land it needs a water supply to supplement the water it can not suck up from the lake/sea for cooling the motor. The on-land water supply is a garden hose attached to the motor’s water inlet port.

  1. Hose hooked up
  2. Water turned on
  3. Turn the key and the motor starts in a fraction of a second.  All is good…
  4. Hmm I don’t hear any water coming out the back of the boat?  Again for non-boaters, the motor sends the, now hot, water from the motor out the back with the exhaust.
  5. I’ll wait a minute, maybe it’s just filling up all the internal channels.
  6. Sure does seem like a while.
  7. Hmm, I’ll turn it off.

Start diagnosing and find that no water is going from the inlet to the motor.  It’s only a short section of tube with a filter on it. I took the filter off, and now I am holding a short tube with a hose attached at one end and a filter housing on the other end, and no water coming out??????

There was one perfectly placed acorn in the inlet tube.  I had left that tube open over the winter because I pulled the inlet port “T” off to replace it in the Spring when I put it away. The motor ran long enough in the driveway to totally destroy the inlet pump.  I don’t know what other damage was done.

They hired a sniper.  Those little rats with fuzzy tales hired a sniper. It’s the only possible explanation.  The shear odds of it being random are hard to even calculate. One acorn, one spot to kill the motor, perfect kill.

This is how it imagine it went down as a timeline from the squirrel’s perspective.

Step 1) Collect pinecones for mid-winter dance RAVE (include a BYOP on invitation as well so we don’t run out of pine cones) . Address is Bahret boat (ya’ll know where it is)

Step 2) Crap! Abort party because it smells really bad.  Grrrr. We’ll get you for this Bahret

Step 3) Get plans for GM PCM 5.7 liter motor for 21′ Ski Nautique.

Step 4) Study plans for a design weakness.  How can we destroy the motor with a single shot. Star Wars style, Luke, feel the force, single shot, Death Star.

Step 5) Ahh, a 3/4″ water inlet port. Find acorn that is 0.750 +-.005 inch

Step 6) Hire a specialist sniper squirrel. The kind that can hit a hood dead center with an acorn from 100 feet up. Get that guy!

Step 6) Get a little gas mask so he can stay in there long enough to get the job done.

Step 7) Also, give him a small shop vac so there is not any trace of even the smallest mouse or ladybug in the boat.  We want Bahret to suspect nothing, and just gleefully turn the key like the dumb ape he is.

Mission Accomplished!

So at this point you are wondering “How can this obvious excuse for a rant by a man once again defeated by nature be tied into a reliability post?”

I am pretty sure that squirrels can’t get plans to a GM PCM 5.7 liter motor.  It’s not that they aren’t’ smart or don’t have the internet, it’s just that I’ve tried to get information on this motor for like five years and nobody on that product team documented anything. They rushed that project out the door so fast that the “PCM” logo is in sharpie.  So it has to be just dumb luck that a single squirrel, the one with apparently no sense of smell, went in there with a single acorn and stuffed it into the best hiding spot he could find. Which happened to be the one place that could kill my motor.  Ok! case solved, it was just a one in a million shot, dumb luck.  Just let it go and move on.

Sound familiar?  Ever said that about a product field failure? “We’ve never seen that happen before” “It’s an outlier” “Probably won’t happen again.”

Ok Mr. boat owner, what if we get a reliability engineer to root cause this for you.? Let me get my other hat, I’ll be right back.


“Look at this guys boat!” There is definitely a trend here of “good enough” style of work.  There is easily a list of 100 things here that weren’t done as they should be. So that’s 100 opportunities for something to have it’s matching outside stress cause a  failure.  There’s vulnerability all over the place.  It’s pretty much inevitable that something is going happen. I predict that something different will happen next year. I’m almost sure of it.

The root cause is the boat owner.  He is creating plenty of opportunities for even the slightest unexpected variability to cause an issue.  In this case the variability was a squirrel with a bad sense of smell. Variability happens, that’s life, insect, squirrels, mice, even the wind, put things in places we didn’t expect. Controlling or complaining about that is stupid. It does make for a good story though.

Wouldn’t it make more sense to make a “design” that can handle that variability.  In this case “a stored boat design” would be a design that doesn’t have holes.  It’s not that hard to go around the boat and look for every possible place a mouse or hornet could fit. Oh good imagine a hornets nest in the boat?  See! that could be next year and then I would have some conspiracy theory about how the squirrels contracted the jobs out to the hornets now.

The odds of any specific thing happening are low.  The odds of “something” happening when there are many low margin features is extremely high. If we dismiss each specific event as a “one off” then we are just going to have to be prepared for a constant string of events, even if no specific one ever occurs exactly the same way again.

I see companies do this with product’s all the time.  They skip some due diligence in the process, let the customer be the test engineer, get a constant stream of “one-off” complaints through the entire product life cycle. The entire time just labeling the one-off’s as gremlins. Never looking into the root cause as to why they were so vulnerable to even the slightest variability in manufacturing, use, or environment.

Product’s have to be robust out of the gate.  Customer’s don’t like being test engineers, warranty expense is just an open wound draining profit margins, and product cycles are too fast today to even permit the opportunity to mature a product in multiple releases.

I encourage you to do this exercise.  It doesn’t’ take long.

  • list all your individual or low count failures for a product line into one category.
  • Label that category “Squirrel Attack”.
  • Write Three column headers on a whiteboard or projected spread sheet.  The headers are “Manufacturing”, “Use”, “Environment”
  • Have the team, just off the cuff, drop each of those failures into one of those three categories.
  • Take the category, manufacturing, use or environment,with the largest quantity and make a program to go through and tighten up design robustness or process improvement.  Do this blindly.  Don’t measure how much you improved it,  Don’t add complicated test programs.  Just walk around the boat and look for vulnerability to variability.

If I do this when I put the boat away this fall I won’t have issues next Spring.  I won’t know exactly why I don’t have issues or what problem’s I mitigated.  What I will know is that I created a more robust design to the glorious randomness of nature and the elements. Maybe my love hate ratio with this boat someday will slide from 90/10 closer to 50/50.


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